HOLDING A COURSE BY JUPITER, under full sail, Ember glides through the North Pacific Ocean and streams a phosphorescent wake. There’s a strange light in the sky away to the north over Vancouver Island. Could it be aurora borealis? More likely sleep-deprived delirium, but it hardly matters when the fog rolls in again.
The short nights of early summer pass quickly at the helm, and I stay awake more often than I should, coaxing this double-ended cutter through the latitudes with any available breeze. We’re a long way from the Los Angeles boatyard slum where I found her, burnt and scavenged, silted over with the grey powder of industrial haze. Restoring thirty-nine feet of charred fiberglass took more than I thought it would, almost more than I had. She gives it all back as days blur into weeks, and I make a slow passage north, sailing from island to uninhabited island, each one a place I’ve never been.
The dreamed-of southern hemisphere swells never arrive, so I abandon the hunt for rideable waves and go ashore to explore the islands’ mysteries: circumnavigate on surf-polished stone, or diminish myself through the claustrophilic understory, barefooted in shin-deep moss, as the smell of salt air blends with soil and evergreen and crushed salal. Unearth the shed antler of a black-tailed deer, green and sprouting. Sift the midden beneath an eagle’s perch: feathers and bones and chalky white mute stains. I pause cliffside in indecision, and a Rufous hummingbird advances, seeking nectar in my iris. At the boundary between a forest and a beach, an island wolf approaches, stands close, looks me over. I try to read my fortune in its amber eyes.
BRITISH COLUMBIA PASSES BY AT A GLANCE, and I see even less of Alaska, puttering through windless channels under continual rain.
I anchor off the mouths of mainland creeks and row upstream on the flood tide. Salmon course past in their final rite, while bald eagles swarm to the spent carcasses, transfigured and rotting along the littoral. A brown bear sow ambles away with her triplets, wary of my presence. I catch a fish for my supper before a brume of bloodthirsty midges drives me back downstream. The clouds part briefly, and mountains stir in the near distance.
In Wrangell, the hardware store clerk lays a chart across the counter, indicates the line through Dry Strait, and flatly warns me against it. He cants his hand at an angle to show how my boat will lie on her side when the tide goes out. By late next morning, I’ve already grounded Ember in the mud, well before the crux shallows. I row Scrounge–the stout fiberglass dinghy I rescued from a San Diego dumpster–out against the current to lay a kedge anchor. But an oar snaps in two, and I toss the kedge hastily overboard, in the wrong spot. I regain Ember, hand over hand along the anchor line; she’s already wobbling in the rising tide. She comes free easily with a nudge from the diesel engine, and the tide race sweeps her away so fast that I’m forced to let go of the line, losing a good anchor. Anyhow, off I go, pinballing between sandbars, running aground from time to time, but gradually finding my way across the fluvial plain of the Stikine River, with just enough water to float Ember‘s six-foot keel. When I drop the hook on the far side in LeConte Bay among a parade of bergs, it feels as if I’ve arrived in the north.
A DAY LATER, THE SETTING SUN tints dispersing cloudbanks while I anchor off Petersburg. As I study the mountains to the northeast, clouds shift and the Devils Thumb is revealed, monolithic, serrating the horizon. It’s a powerful beacon, and my desires crystallize toward those heights. With only a dim awareness of the region, I look up Dieter Klose to see what illumination he can shed on the possibilities. A longtime local resident, “The Manager” has explored all aspects of the Thumb, and I know, through rumor, that he’s an established resource for the rare visiting climber. He proves easy to find; barely an hour after I’ve contacted him by email, he motors alongside my anchored boat in his tough aluminum skiff Fang, climbs aboard Ember and proceeds to tell me everything I ever wanted to know about the Stikine Icecap. At least twenty years my senior, Dieter treats me like a brother. From sunny lawn chairs in his front yard, we gaze across Frederick Sound at Devils Thumb, and he outlines the myriad obstacles to be encountered along the way. He makes one honest attempt to dissuade me from traveling alone on the glaciers before he loans me his tent and a mismatched pair of ice tools. As I heft these storied relics from his past, I notice the sorrow in Dieter’s face. He understands the supernatural call of the mountains, knows it to be irresistible, yet he’s also been scarred by the consequences. Dieter is a romantic, but a realistic one. I can tell he doubts my chances. His parting words ring clear across Wrangell Narrows: “Good luck, you’re in for a whuppin!”
I LEAVE EMBER MOORED IN SCENERY COVE, two lines to shore astern and two anchors in deep water off the bow. With all my kit and two weeks of food piled into Scrounge, I row to the head of Thomas Bay. After entering the wrong stream channel, I drag the dinghy, for what’s left of the afternoon, over cobblestones of the tidal moraine. An oarlock breaks in the final upstream pull against a stiff current, and I pause to lash that oar to the gunwale before rowing on through a lake of sculpted bergs. Scrounge slides easily across an ice bridge and into an upper lake, formed in recent warm seasons.
It’s near dusk on the evening of August 2. I’m minutes away from hauling my dinghy onto the Baird Glacier when I encounter Slush Acres, a floating mass of dirty slush that will support no weight, clogging the upper lake. I chop away with an oar for an enthusiastic hour, but by nightfall I’ve only gained ten feet, and I fall back to a cleft in the schist sidewall for a few hours rest. By dawn, I’m flogging away at the slush again, and it’s an hour and more before I accept defeat and slink back across the ice bridge. Dieter strongly advised me to enter on the left side of the glacier, but with access denied there, I weasel Scrounge toward the center over ice dams and up to the navigable limit of a glacial canal. There, I drag her up onto the toe of the glacier and toss an anchor down a hole in the ice for good measure.
With hand-me-down crampons and borrowed ice tools, I start up the lower Baird for a rude introduction to glacier travel. The way is not obvious, and soon I’m sweating under the load, climbing up and down crevasse walls, searching for a spine that goes. I’m fortunate, and by midday, I escape the wild relief of the lower glacier. It’s a committing first mile, but ahead gleams a clear path of smooth ice. I cast another glance behind me, no longer sure which way I came from, and I resume the sluggish stomp. My haggard old pack lacks even thrift-store value: I cut two inches of foam from my sleeping mat and used it to pad the shoulder straps. In the evening, I pitch Dieter’s tent on the ice and let the Baird wind lull me to sleep.
A clever shortcut adds considerably to the morning mileage, and the sun is past its zenith when I enter the Witches Cauldron on a broad tongue of rough ice. The mythical northwest face of the Devils Thumb grows larger with each step, 6,500 feet of violent erosion. Repulsive. Seductive. Words and photographs fail to convey the magnitude of this mountainside. Nevertheless, I rest my pack on an erratic boulder and waste half a camera battery taking pictures of it. I won’t go that way: much too deadly. So I veer toward the south arm of the Witches Cauldron.
The tongue of ice gives out, and I stumble through an apocalyptic chaos of talus draped over a dying glacier. Route finding is distilled to individual steps, to gauging the stability of each footfall. Trudging into dusk, I wonder where a body might lie down amid this wreckage. I’m about to nest in the rubble when I chance upon a large flat boulder–an island in troubled seas. Home again, I sip muddy meltwater as a lone gull circles the Cauldron. Its short cry echoes through the balmy evening, and I realize, apart from biting flies, it’s the only living creature I’ve seen in two days.
IT’S A POOR CHOICE THE NEXT MORNING when I make a not-quite-running-start leap across a flooded crevasse. The saturated ice on the far side collapses on impact, and I slide halfway into the drink before I’m able to scrabble out, wet and bloody-knuckled. My prize is a level snowfield, and the next hundred paces seem like a city sidewalk. Then I reach more fractures, and continue with more leaps and close calls until broader channels force me to turn back and find another way. I haul myself atop a boulder to lie naked, with my wet clothes spread around me in the sun, and wait for the fear to dissipate.
I try to shrug off a feeling of despair as I lace up sodden boots and resume the toil, my trajectory continually disappointed by crevasses and punctuated ever more frequently by rests atop the nearest convenient block. Amid lengthening shadows, I finally gain a view of the south icefall, which strikes me as utterly appalling. I do my best to ignore it while setting up camp on the ice, but once comfortable, I give it my full attention. With its dramatic features now shaded, the 4,000 feet of cascading glacier above me looks slightly less menacing, and I pick out a line of weakness as best I can.
Morning sun glares off the icefall while I traverse inside a system of braided crevasses. I pick my way across an inner void sluiced with waterfalls. I’d look down the rills to watch colors fade into the black depth, but steep, hard ice commands my attention. A large collapse overhead: frozen shrapnel rains down on my left, and I worry about my timing. Around a corner, I encounter the fallen mass: pale blue tons of ice, shattered, inert. I squeeze past the ruins and climb up freshly scoured chimneys. As I traverse beneath tiers of looming ice castles, I feel like the whack-a-mole in a cosmic arena. It’s obvious madness to keep going upward, so I thread my way across slender ice bridges, gleefully exiting stage left onto sunny rock ledges agurgle with snowmelt.
IN THE HIGHER REACHES OF THE ICEFALL, I come onto a goat track and fall into a brief trance, kicking each step rhythmically into those of the big billy. I look up from this meditation just as I reach a narrow snow bridge across another abysmal crevasse. I consider the margin by which I outweigh this goat. Did he hesitate like me, conscious of the risk? I place my trust in his hoofprints, one foot at a time. The bridge holds. Tracks of other goats mingle and then disperse under the final ramparts of the icefall. I pause to fill water beneath a collapsed block. Waiting for the slow trickle to fill each bottle, I roll a cigarette and bask in the late afternoon sun. A helicopter flies overhead, and I’m optimistic that it will deposit climbers above–the surest sign of continued good weather.
With full tanks, I head up nonchalantly, but I soon wonder whether I could have followed the goats by a safer route as I gamble my way across the dubious snow plugs that separate honeycombed ribs of ice. Finally, I emerge onto an undulating plain of snow, resplendent in the evening sun, and there I see a red tent and two humans. A last, pitiful slog brings me within hailing range, and I inquire about the pleasance of their chopper ride. They laugh, hand me a piece of chocolate, and our brotherhood is cemented. I borrow their shovel to dig in a tent site. As the three of us stomp down the new platform, Mike and Tyler worry aloud that they’re spoiling my solitude.
After sailing alone for weeks and trekking for days through a wasteland of glacial peril, I mean it when I tell them I’m happy for the company. Here they are, with a pile of duffels and a cardboard box of provisions, to climb the east ridge of the Thumb during a period of flawless high pressure. They invite me to join them, but I’m already steeled for the North Pillar, and for climbing alone.
I linger with the boys in the morning; they’ve announced, with a flourish of alpine leisure, that their first day on the ice cap will be one of rest. Once the snow has softened into a tiresome mush, I plod off over the mountain’s eastern shoulder. I immigrate into Canada across a snow bridge that spans a ghastly blue dungeon. Midway, I hit the trapdoor, plunge to my knees and lurch to the far side in an instant belly flop. Onward, I contour below the northeast face of the Devils Thumb, nervously veering between deep glacial recesses. There’s a surge of relief as I near the North Pillar. Three thousand feet of unknowns wait above me, but I’m eager to trade crevasse anxiety for the vertical riddle of the climb.
THE SNOW AT THE BASE of the wall is cratered and debris-strewn, shelled heavily by the peak’s artillery. I set out directly, soloing in boots until the difficulty increases, and then I belay myself up two pitches, accompanied by the constant din of glacial entropy. Fringes of the high glacier collapse on solar-heated slabs and spill into long white furrows across the rippled, gunmetal-black of the dead glacier below. I climb through a frozen section, jamming boots and fists into the space between rock and ice. Above, the angle reclines, and the details blend together as I catch my stride. I pass a notch in the ridge crest where Bob Plumb and Dave Stutzman had shared a cramped bivouac on their first ascent of the North Pillar in 1977. I imagine their presence around me.
I spoke with Bob Plumb briefly as I sailed up Thomas Bay through a fading glimmer of cellular reception. Decades have passed, but his voice still resonates with the potency of the experience, the depth of the partnership. Dave Stutzman has been dead almost as long as I’ve been alive, yet I could hear it when Bob spoke; the bond never dies. I have no partner down at the lonely end of my rope. No one to share the struggles, the rewards. No one for whom I will mourn in some near or distant future. But as I venture up this mountainside, forty years behind Plumb and Stutzman, I feel an undeniable kinship with that pair.
Hundreds of feet fall behind me, and while the light changes toward evening, I reach another notch in the ridgeline, and I reckon it suitable for a bivouac. I belay myself up one more pitch, fix the rope, and rappel back to the notch where some minor trundling reveals a flat seat a bit larger than my ass. I settle in to enjoy my nightly ration of cheesy tuna ramen. With my feet dangling over the fabled northwest face, I doze, bobble-head, and jerk awake repeatedly until the wee hours when, finally accustomed to the local gravity, I catch some good naps.
MOCHA AT FIRST LIGHT, and I watch dawn break over the Stikine Icecap. Infinite peaks tickle the bluing sky, and the glaciers appear below as long, dark corridors winding down and down to the sea. I follow a path of least resistance up the pillar until I’m stopped by hard moves. Then I scratch moss from a crack, nest thin cams into an anchor and belay myself up a rope length, followed by two more. My hands are in crisp diorite fissures when the boys come into view–ants skylined on the east ridge–and we hoot and holler at each other. The summit feels close, and I’m keen to catch Mike and Tyler in time to ride their ropes down. With this subtle distraction, my sphere of self-reliance is punctured, and I lower my guard.
With a slack rope in tow, I head up wet snow, kicking through to thin ice and stacked rubble. At the top of the snow band, I move left beneath a steep wall, stomping and chopping and trundling in search of secure footing. And so it goes for a while, left hand excavating with a tool, right one gripping the rock through a rapidly deteriorating fleece glove, until I climb myself into an awkward position, splayed out across a corner. Tense, I reverse a few moves to improve my balance. My fingers close around a hornblende knob, and as I relax into a secure stance, the knob breaks off in my hand. For a sickening moment, I teeter. The space beneath is so immense that it feels like a hand at my back, defining the limit of my equilibrium. I loosen my grip, and as the bad hold falls away, I press myself back into the climb.
Another snapshot of mortality. My face flushes as I shout inanely to the boys–something about almost dying–and proceed with the business, traversing until I find an exit above. After a pitch of wet rock, then a dry one, I gain the east ridge and follow it clear to the top, where I join Mike and Tyler as they soak up the glory. I call Mom on their satellite phone; luckily the reception is bad so she can’t ask too many questions.
The summit is like so many others: a fleeting glimpse. I look beyond the mountains to the islands and channels in the west, and wonder about the passage home. When the boys offer me the middle of their rope, I tie in with a smile and we clown our way back along the summit crest, posing for silly photographs. It feels good to ride in the back seat as Tyler and Mike lead me down the southeast face in a wandering descent. We squeeze a few Stevie Nicks tunes out of Tyler’s music box while Mike builds a trail of single-nut anchors down the mountain. Under a gigantic full moon, we slog back to camp, and after sharing a moment of collective triumph–backslaps, high fives and hugs–I crawl into my greasy fart sack and cook a late-night meal.
THE CHOPPER TOUCHES DOWN PROMPTLY at 8 a.m., and the boys fly out, unburdening me of the heavier climbing gear and leaving me with such essential sundries as tape, sunscreen and ibuprofen. Once the noise of the helicopter fades, absorbed by the morning stillness, even my own small rustlings sound loud and intrusive. Alone again, I pack my kit and head toward the south icefall while the new day’s sun blasts any hopes of firm snow. The icefall has withered like a prune. My ascent track, merely two days old, is now interrupted by a hideous crevasse, and I feel the toll of having crossed a one-way bridge.
I take a different route, down a rockband, and then I creep out onto a pockmarked snowfield. As I walk cautiously forward, my left leg punches through to the crotch. Like a starfish, I belly forward onto firmer snow. I regain my feet and tiptoe across the surface, probing mightily with a ski pole, until I reach bare ice and can pick my way down through its corrugations.
The lower icefall has degenerated beyond consideration, so I stay on the rock ledges that flank it, and soon stumble onto heathered slopes lush with wildflowers. I luxuriate in the sun, sipping from waterfalls and nibbling berries. Less than eager to return into the Witches Cauldron, I roll up the dregs of my tobacco, sprinkled with a bit of weed, and smoke to my good fortune.
After a couple hours’ reverie, I shoulder my pack and follow the water flow down verdant slopes. Near the bottom, the grassy ledges wane, and I descend into a band of conglomerates cemented steeply to the mountainside. Cobbles shift and release underfoot, and the resulting dust clouds swirl about my eyes in a gentle updraft. It’ll be a double helping of cheesy tuna ramen tonight.
AFTER BREAKFAST I’M UNDERWAY AGAIN, but I soon embroil myself in a labyrinth of eroding crevasses and uncertain steps back through the Witches Cauldron. I press on past the confluence of glaciers, not stopping until deep twilight.
In the morning, I stroll dreamily alongside blue ice streams flowing down Baird Glacier. I’m ravenous, and it’s still early by the time I’ve devoured the day’s ration of salami and cheese, the last of the trail mix, and the final figs. The lower Baird disintegrates before me into a kaleidoscope of glacial crests and ravines, features so similar they appear indistinguishable from each other. I traverse between spines, hoping to settle on the one I’d ascended. Inevitably, I miss the line, and when my chosen spine ends abruptly at a steep pillar, I’m forced down a crevasse to navigate the maze from within.
While chimneying though an azure rift, I drop Dieter’s axe. The hair on my neck stiffens as I watch it clatter into the archeological record. A sacred artifact from another man’s past is a hard thing to lose. The axe comes to rest several feet below me, wedged tenuously across the gap. I squish myself down into the narrowing slot to retrieve the tool. Soon, I’m swinging it again to full effect, burying the pick into the consolidated cube ice of a glacier wall as I regain the spine, only to be halted atop another pillar. And then another, the steepest yet. By chance, a tunnel breaches this edifice at mid-height, like a second-story window. I lower my pack over the outside, and then worm down through the ice tube, exiting feet first and climbing down to the crevasse floor.
With relief, I find the Yellow Brick Road, a band of ochre rocks that streak through the glacier. I had built a number of cairns with these rocks on the way up to help me locate my dinghy, but they’ve all toppled in the ensuing thaw. So I follow my nose back to Scrounge‘s berth, and as I peer over the ice toward my waiting dinghy, my worst fears are confirmed: she’s gone, set adrift by glacial downwasting. An unsavory predicament, nevertheless I have survived the lower Baird and will merely have to wait until a boat passes close enough to signal, however many days that might take. So with time on my hands, I keep searching for the dinghy. After rounding a few bends, I spy her pulled up on the ice with her anchor down, just exactly where I’d left her.
Open lanes of water stretch between us, but even half an hour of backtracking through the dreaded Canal District cannot diminish my spirits. Eventually I reach Scrounge, slide her free of the ice and tumble inboard, mindful of the crampons I’m wearing. Broken pieces of cheap cast alloy–formerly an oarlock–litter the bilge, hints of the long list of maintenance obligations ahead. A few minor ice portages lead to the downstream leg, and all that’s left is the three-mile row to Scenery Cove. I know I’ve gotten away with it when Ember comes into view, still snug at anchor. After hauling my gear aboard, I sit down in the cockpit, and as I reach for my bootlaces, the first raindrops fall.